GUEST COLUMN/Disagreeing as American as apple pie
Whether you’re on the Right or the Left, I bet you’ll agree: politics has changed a lot recently—and not for the better. I’ve been politically engaged since I was a kid, putting out campaign signs with my dad driving around rural Jones County. One of my earliest memories is watching George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis debate in 1988 who should succeed Ronald Reagan for the White House. I’ve written op-eds (like this one), letters to the editor, and more than a few political posts on social media, so I’m not new to the world of political discourse. But I have never experienced anything like the bitterness and vitriol I’ve witnessed this last year from those on both sides of the aisle.
Something seems to have shifted in the way we engage politically in America. Our language is courser, and our attacks are more personal. Every election cycle we are assured this is the most important election of our lifetime; our very lives depend on it. And as I watch people fight as though they are, indeed, defending their own lives, it appears as though the messaging has worked. In conversation after conversation, I hear friends on the Right demonize those on the Left, and friends on the Left do the same to the Right. There is a pervasive sense that those we disagree with politically are no longer just wrong; they are actually evil, even malevolent.
That we have political disagreements isn’t in and of itself a bad thing. In fact, I would argue the opposite. Disagreeing is as American as apple pie. From our founding, one of the strengths of this nation has been our diversity of thought, but the founders agreed on those first principles that truly matter for self-government. Baked into our founding documents are protections for people to disagree.
Recently I’ve thought a lot about the quote from German theologian Rupertus Meldenius (often misattributed to St. Augustine) saying: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” Where America seems to have gone wrong is mistaking essentials (must-haves) for non-essentials (nice-to-haves), and we’ve almost altogether thrown out the charity—arguably the most essential ingredient for meaningful discourse. And we’ve filled the vacuum left by charity with contempt.
Dr. John Gottman, famous for his work on marriage stability and divorce prediction, names contempt as one of “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” that is lethal to a relationship—it’s not whether a couple fights, but whether they hold contempt for one another that is an indicator of marital weakness. If a marriage cannot survive contempt, where does that leave us as a nation as we engage in political discourse with those whom we have already decided are the enemy?
Today, people in both parties have elevated a wide array of public policies and cultural preferences to “essential” status, and doing so means we find anyone who disagrees with us on anything to be un-American. The Declaration of Independence does not outline whether we should rely on income taxes or consumption taxes to fund the government, but it does protect our essential right to have the conversation.
Pluralism, the idea that different religions, values, and ideologies can coexist within a nation, was an essential value for the American Founders. They anchored this nation on a few non-negotiable, foundational ideas: freedom to worship, speak up, peacefully assemble, all under the premise that all men are created equal. The founders were imperfect in their practice of these values, but that doesn’t negate their significance. And those ideas that deserve unity are not limitless. The founders imagined a great deal of disagreement or disunity within the nation. That is not a bug in their system, it is a feature! How do I know? Two reasons actually:
First, the first amendment protections wouldn’t be necessary if the founders expected everyone to agree about everything. Those protections were intended to ensure that Americans would have the freedom to disagree with each other or even their government without the fear of persecution. Second, the founders themselves disagreed over hundreds of different topics. Whether to have an American monarchy, where to put the U.S. Capital, whether to have a federal bank, how to conduct trade policy, when to utilize our military to aid another country? If you have read the Federalist Papers (or watched the hit Broadway musical Hamilton for that matter), you know there were disagreements on virtually every topic imaginable. But they were unified around the essentials.
The solution isn’t a national kumbaya moment where everyone falls in line behind a party or an idea; it’s learning to disagree better, and still find unity around those first principles. The solution isn’t less debate, it’s more debate, but with respect, civility, and charity, without contempt. You see, rigorous debate makes our ideas better, it helps reveal our blind spots and fallacies, and it holds the potential to help us better understand each other and ourselves.
Grant Callen lives in Madison and is Founder & CEO of Empower Mississippi, an independent nonprofit advocacy organization based in Ridgeland. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.